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Penniman: My Path to Healing

March 28th, 2017 Sears Homes No comments

Several weeks ago, I had dinner with Robert, a friend and fellow history lover. I told him that I was a lost soul. He asked me about the Penniman book. I told him that I didn’t think I could face the manuscript again and that my writing days were over.

He asked specific questions about the people of Penniman, and I felt like something deep inside my soul came to life again. I felt a spark of joy and zeal and hope.

After our dinner, it became so clear to me: It was time to finish the project.

One year ago - April 24th - I was scheduled to give a talk on Penniman in Williamsburg. It turned out to be the day of my husband’s funeral. At the time, the Penniman manuscript - a book on which I’d labored for 4+ years - was 95% complete.

Now, one year later, thanks to Robert and Pat and Milton and others, that manuscript is finished, and after some finishing touches to the artwork, it will be ready for the printer. Hopefully.

The casual outsider may not understand that this is more than just a book.  It’s a project that helps me stop thinking about the ongoing emotional angst that is my constant companion. It’s a project that helps me forget - for a few seconds at a time - that my husband died by his own hand, 48 hours after telling me that we’d grow old together.

In short, it’s a rope that’s been tossed down into this hellish pit, and it’s a way out.

It’s so much more than a book.

I’m grateful for each and every prayer offered in my name. And I’m grateful for the people that have shown up and said just the right thing at just the right time. They’re angels walking this earth in human form.

Images below are courtesy of the family of Joseph and Ola Whisnant. Thanks to the foresight and generosity of the Whisnant family, we have street views and genre scenes of life in Penniman. Cameras were probably forbidden within the cantonment of Penniman, and visitors would have subjected to a daunting search of their personal belongings, entering and exiting. These images are the only known existing photographs of the residential areas of Penniman.

To learn more about Penniman, click here.

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house

Members of the Whisnant family pose on the streets of Penniman. The houses shown in the background were moved to Norfolk, Williamsburg and other surrounding communities. From left to right is the Cumberland, Georgia, Florence, Haskell and a piece of another Georgia. These models were built at other DuPont plants during The Great War.

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ether

According to reminiscenses, the streets of Penniman were a mess of mud and muck. This wonderful picture gives a detailed view of The Village (as it was known), where the workers took their rest after a hard day on the shell-loading line. The women workers are known as Canary Girls, because the TNT (loaded into shells) was bright yellow, and stained their skin and hair. It was also a toxin.

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what

These houses were known as "Six-Room Bungalows" and were covered with Ruberoid siding, which is nothing more than heavy tarpaper. These bunkhouses and dorms (not shown here) housed the "lower class" workers.

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Thanks again to the Whisnant Family for sharing these wonderful pictures.

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The Great Atlantic Fleet - Parked at Penniman

March 8th, 2016 Sears Homes 3 comments

While reading the Newport News Daily Press, I stumbled upon a little item in the 1923 paper that connected a lot of dots. In the article (from the Associated Press), Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels explained that during The Great War, the Navy had stationed “more than a dozen battleships” at the mouth of the York River, near the Chesapeake Bay. He described the location as “an ancient naval base” adding that under “voluntary censorship” this information was never published.

“We were anchored right where Admiral Rochambeau’s French fleet took its stand and cut off relief by sea for General Cornwallis,” Daniels told the Associated Press (February 11, 1923).

For the geographically challenged among us, that’s mighty close to Penniman. If you were standing on the beach at Penniman near King’s Creek (the southern boundary of Penniman), that very spot - where Rochambeau parked his fleet - would be about four  miles southeast.

Secretary Daniels described the unnumbered group of ships as “the world’s greatest deposit of battleships,” and “the home port of that part of the Atlantic Fleet” (during the war). The article also explained that metal submarine nets had been stretched across the mouth of the York River. (A few days later, another article appeared, explaining that local fishermen were begging the Navy to start removing the “huge steel nets.”)

“Penniman is on the south side of the York River, and near its mouth,” wrote George Harris, an Army private stationed at Penniman. Written October 28, 1918, the letter was published in Harris’ hometown paper (Spirit Lake Beacon, Iowa) a few days after the war ended.

“We can stand out on the beach and see the Chesapeake Bay,” Harris noted. “Several battleships are stationed in the mouth of the river and the bay. One day, I counted 14 of those ships and four more in the distance” (November 17, 1918).

Those battleships anchored at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay must have been a remarkable thing to see, because several letters written about life at Penniman mention that view.

Not surprisingly, the sailors on board those ships took their liberties at Penniman.

In June 1918, a YWCA* worker filed a report on conditions of the munitions plant at Penniman. She wrote, “There’s a [soda] fountain that dispenses drinks at all hours to a motley crowd, resembling nothing so much as a Douglas Fairbanks wild west movie. This affair is even more thrilling to the girls by the arrival every evening of the crew of a minesweeper or battleship from the fleet at Yorktown, four miles below.”

Two months later, a “confidential report” was given by M. S. Shephard on “the moral situation” at Penniman. The head man at the plant, Mr. Benesh, appealed to the YWCA for help, and it was suggested that a police woman work undercover, and that a “especially good morality worker” provide regular lectures at the plant.

“The situation at Penniman is not a simple one,” the letter continued, “for the girls and women are of all types” (August 7, 1918).

The war ended three months later, and hopefully most of those “girls and women of all types” went home with their virtue unblemished.

Why did the Navy decide to park their battleships at the mouth of the York River? Mark Hardin, a phenomenal researcher and hard-core history lover, recently discovered an old map showing the placement of four three-inch anti-aircraft guns positioned in and around Hopewell (site of a WW1-era DuPont guncotton plant). Did Penniman have anti-aircraft guns as well? It was one of two of America’s largest shell-loading plants, and was vital to the war effort.

I suspect that the Great Atlantic Fleet provided all the protection that Penniman needed.

Thanks to Mike Neal for sharing images from this wonderful book (shown below).

*Penniman-YWCA letters are courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College.

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Superdreadnought (Battleship)

When Private George Harris stood on Penniman's beach and looked out toward the Chesapeake Bay, did he see this? This is Superdreadnought (Battleship) Arizona, commissioned October 1916. According to Harris, he saw at least 14 battleships in the York River in Fall of 1918.

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Heres a picture of the Great Atlantic Fleet underway (1917).

Here's a picture of the Great Atlantic Fleet underway (1917).

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Sailors on board an unnamed battleship, with 14-inch shells which were just supplied by a lighter.

Sailors on board an unnamed battleship, with 14-inch shells which were just delivered by a "lighter."

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These guys look like they could show a young girl a thing or two. I hope that especially good morality speaker went to Penniman with due haste.

I hope that the "especially good morality speaker" went to Penniman with due haste.

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Vladmir

That guy on the right looks a lot like Vladmir Putin.

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ff

The caption of this photo states that fencing helped develop confidence, courage and control. That boat shown in the upper right was probably also used to get the young sailors over to Penniman.

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These images appeared in this rare book, published in late 1917. Thanks to Mike Neal for allowing me to use images from this delightful old tome.

These pictures shown above are from this rare book, published in late 1917. Thanks to Mike Neal for allowing me to use images from this delightful old tome.

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To learn more about Penniman, click here.

Want to learn how to identify kit homes? Here’s the place.

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